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Category archive: Sovietisation

Thursday July 03 2008

A current blog favourite of mine is the Spectator Coffee House blog, and they laugh at Ed Balls’s latest pronouncements, but actually most of what he says sounds not that ridiculous to me, although his notion of kids being tested without them even realising it does seem somewhat fanciful.  But I think he mostly emerges quite well from this interview, in contrast to how he lets himself look in this story.  Kindness and gentleness are all very well for schools, but when Ed Balls is in a hurry, forget about that.

As I often feel with incompetent socialist politicians, I think to myself, this man might have made a quite capable headmaster, and might actually have done some good, instead of either raging impotently at the ills of the institutions that he supposedly controls, or actually barging in to improve them, and thereby making them worse.

Anyway, the political cycle is such that it is rapidly ceasing to matter what Ed Balls thinks.  And you sense that even the New Statesman now realises this.

For an anti-Balls view that is serious rather than mocking, read the first comment at the NS:

My God, Ed Balls is employing some appalling sophistry with regard to SATs. Over the past 15 years or so, the push to ever more prescriptive curricula and more measurement has created huge amounts of performance anxiety in the education system. And, worst of all, is removing professional autonomy from educators. Children are not being taught how to think or question anything, merely pushed through a mechanistic process to turn out the service fodder for the 21st century that employers demand. Judging by recent comments from employers and the levels of literacy of school leavers, even this goal is not being met.

But according to Ed, it’s all the fault of the schools. This is such a transparent attempt to pass the buck that it would be plainly laughable, were it not for the fact that I am afraid he might actually be sincere. ...

But another commenter reacted much as I did:

Balls strikes absolutely the right tone here. He dismisses the media hysteria that seems to attach itself to stories involving children and yet acknowledges the kernel of truth upon which the stories are based. He sounds humane and measured - and, when attacked, manages to avoid sounding defensive.

It would be a good thing if Ball’s tone was replicated throughout the media.

Trouble is, it doesn’t matter how nice Mr Balls is when being interviewed.  He still presides over a nationalised industry in an advanced state of decay, and for that mere niceness is completely beside the point.  No wonder, when not performing to nice lady journalists, he opens car doors in people’s faces (see link above).

Friday June 27 2008

Terence Kealey thinks there’s no problem with University exams, no grade inflation.  But here are a couple of recent pieces ...

I’ve been told that if I didn’t give out more firsts to my students then it would reflect badly on me and my teaching, with the unspoken threat of my visiting lecturer contract not being renewed, even though all my observations and assessments by peers and managers have been excellent.

image… that say otherwise.

Prof Geoffrey Alderman, who used to be in charge of safeguarding standards at Britain’s largest university, the University of London, blamed grade inflation on “a league table culture”.

He told The Independent newspaper that lecturers were under pressure to “mark positively” to secure a good position in the tables.

“The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher a ranking is likely to be,” he said.

“So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league table rivals and - if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes - the argument is put about that ‘peer’ institutions must do the same.”

This later bit strikes a particularly ominous note:

He said universities were particularly “generous” when they marked non-European Union students, who pay far more in fees.

Both are in the Guardian, with the second quoting something said to the Independent.  It seems that in this argument the free marketeers are defending the status quo, and the lefties are attacking it.  Kealey was responding to all this stuff.

Go here, and you learn about a podcast interview with Professor Alderman, and find a link to Alderman’s own website.

And look what it says there:

In June 2007 Geoffrey joined the University of Buckingham as Michael Gross Professor of Politics & Contemporary History.

So he’s at the very same university that Terence Kealey is the Vice Chancellor of.  Hah!  Alderman doesn’t sound like any kind of lefty.  He favours complete autonomy of universities of the sort they have in the USA, just as Kealey does.  But, he also favours good and honest external examiners.  At present, he says, we have neither.

A complicated argument, pulsating with ironies of all kinds.  But it’s clear who the politicians are inclined to believe.

I can’t find the Independent front page article about what Alderman said which he refers to in that podcast.  It happened while I was abroad, I think.  Link to that, anyone?

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Monday May 19 2008

More about this story.

Via this article in the Times, I found my way to this remarkable sound recording, of an academic at Kingston University, Fiona Barlowe-Brown, urging students lie to Mori polsters about the excellence of their university.  More info about the recording here.

She sounds like a rather fine teacher.  What a tragedy that she has been induced to become a fraudster.

As Niall Ferguson is quoted saying, in this:

It was comical, he added, how much the English exam system resembled the target-driven planned economy of the old Soviet Union in which every last detail was controlled from the centre and based on inadequate information and ideological preoccupations.

“Inadequate” didn’t, and doesn’t, begin to describe the fraudulent and delusional nature of this information.

The point about the Soviet economic system is that good people lied, and for good reasons.  It was not the occasional bad apple who lied.  Everyone lied.  To blame Fiona Barlowe-Brown and her pal for this, and nobody else, is to miss the point entirely.

Sunday May 18 2008

From a comment by “PT”, on this:

Did you know the new generation of schools funded under the PFI scam will probably last no longer than 25 years?

I should know. I design many of them!

That’s way long enough for alternatives to develop, but it is depressing even so, and even if exaggerated.

PFI, by the way, stands for “Private Finance Initiative”.  It’s a way of combining public spending with public borrowing.

Friday May 16 2008

The BBC reported on Tuesday that:

Students from a range of universities are claiming they are being pressed to make falsely enthusiastic responses to an official satisfaction survey.

The survery in question being this one.  Today, the BBC reports that tougher guidelines will tell universities that they jolly well must not do this.

Tougher guidelines ...

Yes, tougher guildelines.

… are to be issued to warn universities against manipulating the results of a league table of student satisfaction.

The Higher Education Funding Council says it will issue the guidelines for the next National Student Survey. ...

The guidelines are expected to warn universities that they must not try to influence how students complete this annual survey.

Tougher guidelines are also expected to warn fishes that they must not try to swim.

Monday May 05 2008

Here.  Quote:

Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

I am certainly a romantic in the sense that I believe that millions of children could be doing massively better than they do at school.  But I do not hope to see “educational” achievement blossoming.  Just achievement.

Murray’s point is that many are of limited “intellectual ability”, and maybe they are.  But many non-intellectuals do indeed flourish, as soon as they leave school and get stuck into real life.  This is because in real life, intellectual cleverness is not, to put it mildly, the only virtue that matters.

To repeat something which I suspect you are going to read a lot more at this blog if you stay with it: good education does not mean mere exam success, higher academic standards, etc.  It means what you need to learn to have a good life.  And for many, the best way to start learning about real life is to start real life.

Quote again:

The parallels between the trajectory of the Soviet Union’s attempt to reform its economy and the trajectory of the federal government’s attempts to reform the public education system are striking. By the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders knew that they had to introduce supply and demand into the economy, but they couldn’t bring themselves to try honest-to-God capitalism, so they tried to decentralize decision-making and permit some elements of a market economy while retaining central price controls and government ownership of the means of production. The reforms were based on premises about human nature that were patently wrong. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the educational romantics - and George W. Bush is the Percy Bysshe Shelley of educational romantics - knew that public school systems everywhere had become bureaucratically top-heavy and that many inner-city schools were no longer functional. They knew that the billions of federal money spent on upgrading education for disadvantaged children had produced no demonstrable improvements. But they thought they could fix the system. Bush’s glasnost was to implement accountability through measurement of results by test scores. Bush’s perestroika was a mishmash of performance standards and fragments of a market economy in schools, while retaining public funding of the schools and government control over the enforcement of the new standards. ...

Amen.  But, the conclusion to be drawn from this is not to be satisfied with the Western educational equivalent of the Brezhnev regime.  The conclusion, which Murray hints at obliquely but does not spell out: capitalism for all!  The real thing.

It worked and works for adults.  Freedom for adults – all adults - had and continues to have exactly the kind of transformational effects that anti-romantics regard as delusional.  Yet they happened and happen.  So, why not try the same thing with children?

If the modern electronic industry (in the form of things like the thing I’m typing this into) had not happened, most anti-romantics would say that it was utterly impossible.  Yet capitalism routinely extracts extraordinary achievements from very ordinary people indeed.  The subtitle of Murray’s article is: “On requiring every child to be above average.” Under rip-roaring capitalism, just about every adult is “above average”, by the standards of pre-capitalist times, and by the standards of the still severely non-capitalist places now.

Maybe children can’t do freedom.  Maybe, by their nature (nature again), they can’t handle it.  But we could at least make a start with adolescents.  We could at least liberate the big children, the children who aren’t really children at all.

Monday April 21 2008

I wonder if this will do any good:

The Government will continue its concerted attack on teacher workloads today, by launching the first-ever independent scrutiny unit made up of frontline teachers, to cut red tape and free schools of bureaucracy.

The Implementation Review Unit (IRU) is a key component of implementing the national workforce agreement and will tackle unnecessary paper work, assess workload implications and reduce bureaucratic processes. It shows the continued progress and delivery by signatories to reduce workloads and help teachers focus on improving pupil learning.

Trouble is, all this happened five years ago.

Cutting red tape and freeing schools of bureaucracy
Snuffy says don’t blame the teachers
The department for children, schools and families takes complete care of the children
Too bad children are not crows
For British state education read Soviet tractors
Yet another perverse incentive
Perverse incentives